Pets in the Middle Ages: Evidence from Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
By Kristen M. Figg
Enarratio, Vol. 18 (2013)
Introduction: When trying to gather reliable information about animals as pets in the Middle Ages, modern scholars immediately come up against a major cultural barrier. As Klaus Weimann points out in his preface to the volume Middle English Animal Literature, medieval people “lived … in close contact with several species of animals both wild and domestic,” but because they believed in a hierarchical scheme of existence with animals on a parallel plane below humans, they tended to think about animals as if they were a counterpart to human society. Thus they wrote about them most often in ways meant to instruct, describing them in bestiaries, fables, or tales like the Roman de Renart with a moralizing intent, rather than conveying information as if they had interest in the animals themselves.
While we are able to find images in art and references in hagiography and narrative literature to many animals who lived in close proximity with their owners and whose relations with humans suggest that they had special status, the examples tend towards the exceptional or even the symbolic, so that we are never sure that we are seeing a dependable representation of how people in general thought about animals that we, today, consider to be “pets.” Indeed, the lack of a word for pets, which extended well into the modern period, suggests that we may be taking for granted a lexical domain that did not exist, as such, in the Middle Ages. Thus, it is instructive to see what we can find out from looking directly at early dictionaries, word histories, and medieval encyclopedic works, where animals are discussed in ways that might more closely suggest their roles in relation to human society in the High to Late Middle Ages.
Modern etymological dictionaries document the word “pet” as being a rather late entry into English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is first recorded around 1539 as referring to a lamb reared by hand. This word probably came from Scots or a northern English dialect with the pastoral sense as its primary meaning, though it is documented in the sense of “indulged child” (1568) near the same period. Johnson’s Dictionary clarifies that the lamb was “taken into the home,” and most etymologies speculate that the word was associated with or influenced by “petty/petit,” so one might imagine a connotation having to do with a diminutive member of the family.